But in reality the scope and purpose of museums around the world vary enormously, both in what they conserve and how they present it to the public. In today’s modern age, where the thirst for lifelong learning has never been greater, institutions need to work harder in the way they interact with visitors. Displaying classical objects in dusty museums cases is not enough to win over a demanding public, no matter how rare and significant the pieces.
Of course a good museum starts with its collection, without that it is not a museum. This however is only the starting point. For me, museums need to use a range of tools and techniques to tell the story of the past. When I visit a museum I want to be able to get a sense of the world in years gone by – presented correctly objects really can speak a thousand words, as BBC Radio 4’s recent Shakespeare’s Restless World proved. Touring galleries, I want to know what people thought, what they would have seen, what they would have smelt and what they would have heard. Objects and artefacts can go a long way to telling the past’s story, but good museums supplement with photos, videos, models and other effects.
In terms of a case study for a good museum, I think Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum ticks all the boxes, somewhere I had the pleasure of visiting at the weekend. The middle passage gallery, which charts the history of the terrible conditions slaves faced as they were squashed into cramped boats on the torturous journey from Africa to the New World, is particularly effective. The shackles that were put on the enslaved people are displayed in well illuminated cabinets. There is a chilling model of a ship, based on contemporary paintings, that brings home the horrors of the poor conditions victims faced. Accompanying text discusses the magnitude of the crime. During the 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade at least 12m Africans were forcibly transported on ships – but about a quarter died on the passage. Visitors can also feel the full force of the conditions on board ships with a video room featuring wrap-around screens showing the terrible transatlantic journeys that slaves faced below deck.
Those that did make it to the New World were both lucky and unlucky – in that they’d made the passage but faced a pretty bleak future on plantations where they were quite literally worked to their deaths. The museum has an impressive large scale model of a plantation next to which visitors can listen to audio accounts, based on original sources, of daily lives for the enslaved workers. Listening to the accounts of the workers, where they were whipped for not working hard enough, can be contrasted with the lavish daily life lived out by plantation managers and owners.
The slave trade made plantation owners very rich indeed. Attractive returns of 10% a year meant that the entrepreneurs could build themselves great country houses in England. It is particularly fitting that the museum is in Liverpool because by the end of the 1700s it was the slavery capital of the world given the high number of ships sailing to Africa. The profits from the slave trade were invested in many other enterprises such as iron, coal and banking bringing about a boom in the local economy.
Of course, history needs to be set in context – something that the International Slavery Museum does well. It has a whole gallery dedicated to the legacy of slave and the sad fact that, despite the Abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1807 (which is properly charted in the museum as well), the trade continues today.
No-one today could ever possibly fully comprehend the horrors that enslaved African faced, but the International Slavery Museum is the best attempt I have seen in the UK to chart this chilling history.